I recently asked a question on biology.stackexchange.com that if an amoeba showed "avoidance" behavior, would this constitute a "motivation" to avoid something.

Within a biology context, the term "motivation" is seen to be a primarily human characteristic associated with "free will".

I explained that when I said "motivation", I simply meant unscripted information processing.

To this, the reply was:

Again, definitions are important: "motivation" does not ordinarily mean "information processing" in fields of psychology/neuroscience/biology.

This surprised me. Doesn't cognitive psychology define human "motivation" in terms of information processing?

When I did a google search, I found this reference.

Am I wrong? Would it be unreasonable to attempt to define "motivation" in terms of information processing?

  • $\begingroup$ This is a very different question than the problem I was pointing out with your approach. The problem with your approach is that you were saying "if information is processed, then that's motivation". That is not the same as saying "is motivation a form of information processing". Every apple is a fruit does not mean every fruit is an apple. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause The above was what I was saying. I am not sure what I said that misled you. I will reread my comment. I would never say that information processing is the same thing as motivation. Just that information processing is part of a definition of motivation that does not involve mention of "free will". $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ I'll reply on the other comment thread. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 20:11

2 Answers 2


Rephrasing the reply you obtained, motivation does not always involve conscious information processing, although you are correct that information processing can be involved.

While sometimes you may choose to continue the experience of the adrenaline surge incited by fear through, say, a rollercoaster ride or a horror movie, fear will generally motivate you to avoid a given situation.

This is an example of where information processing comes into play. Another example is if you think "It would be a nice day for a walk in the park", you will have been processing information such as the weather and may be you will have weighed up options on what you would like to do today.

However, there are instances where motivation can involve no conscious information processing. You can simply decide you just want to go for a walk in the park, for instance. There may be no reason. Just that you feel like doing it.

Cognitively, in a conscious sense, you are then motivated to do so with no information processing. But, here is the rub. You felt like doing it. Unconsciously, you decided you feel like a walk in the park as opposed to driving to the nearest beach and spending some time there.

Have a look at Subconscious vs Unconscious for more on what I am talking about and for some studies yielding surprising results, have a look at Predictive Experiments on Neuroscience of Free Will


Although I generally agree with the answer above (given by Chris Rogers), I can try to add somehting that hopefully might be of use.

I also believe that definitions are important, but in this case any given definition should be constrained to a particular context. In the context of decision making (i.e., behavioral psychology or behavioral neuroscience), and as an example, one can understand motivation as the time invested (or spent) in making a specific decision, what is known as the Reaction Time. This has been validated in several theoretical and experimental studies including seminal works Niv, et al. 2007, Satoh, et al. 2003 and more recent ones Sarno, et al. 2022, Mohebi, et al. 2019.

Broadly speaking, if we also incorporate ideas of motor and vigor control Botvinick & Braver 2015 (but also see Niv, et al. 2007) an agent needs to balance a trade off between utilities and costs (regardless of the nature of these costs). In regards to the information processing aspect, I subscript to Chris' answer in that how is this rationale between gains and losses need not be conscious, planned, ... but may also be habituated.

To sum up, my understanding (also based on our own work) is that motivation is not only about taking actions but also about the intensity of such actions (e.g., how fast to run away from a predator or how fast to respond to a stimulus). The latter is not mentioned by Chris I believe. If we think about motivation just as selecting choices from several possibilities, then there would be no formal difference between motivation and decision making.

That would be my take on the matter.


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